Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Film Friday: The Hunger Games (2012)

The Hunger Games proved quite a sensation. Millions of kids the world over fell in love with the story and its heroine Katniss. It was only natural they would make a movie, and make they did. They eventually made four movies and this was the first. Interestingly, a lot of conservatives love this series, but I don’t see anything conservative going on in this particular film.

Plot

The Hunger Games takes place 74 years after some sort of nuclear civil war in the United States resulted in the separation of the country into a twelve districts (a thirteenth is mentioned, but is also mentioned as having been destroyed) under the dictatorial control of a central power. The country is called Panem, but few details about it are given. The film doesn’t even tell you where this central power resides, though you are told it is called “the Capitol” and it has the look of a fantasy version of Washington state.
The story focuses on a young girl named Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence). She lives in what was once West Virginia, where they mine coal which gets supplied to the Capitol. As the story opens, a group of “Reapers” shows up in Katniss’s district – District 12. They have come to run a lottery from which one boy and one girl will be chosen. Those kids will be taken to the Capitol, where they will fight to the death in a game of survival called “The Hunger Games.” This game was created as a punishment for the other districts for rising up against the Capitol and has continued on as a sort of bread and circus tool for controlling the population.
During the lottery, Katniss’ little sister is chosen, but Katniss volunteers to take her place. For the boys, a useless son of a baker is chosen, who just happens to have a long term crush on Katniss. They are taken to the Capitol by high speed train (thanks Obama!), where they meet the other kids, several of whom have been illegally trained their whole lives for this event... providing the richer districts with an advantage. Katniss’s district has never won.

The children are then trained and paraded before television audiences. They are told to be likable so that sponsors will send them critical gifts during the game. They are also taught martial arts. It turns out, by the way, that Katniss has superior skills to the other kids.

Finally, they are dumped into a forested area and told to kill each other off.

A Good Movie, But Hardly Conservative

I’ve heard a lot of conservatives, particularly libertarians, who identify with these books and swear they have libertarian overtones. That may be true of the books, but this film really doesn’t have political overtones. Apart from some vague populist finger pointing at a fantasy centralized power dominating the country in some future dystopia, there is virtually nothing political in this film, and certainly nothing that would qualify as a coherent political statement. Indeed, none of the characters fights for freedom. None of the characters even talks up freedom. The theme of abuse of power is barely explored, except as a plot device to heighten the challenge Katniss faces, and the theory of how concentrated power leads to abuse is entirely absent from the film. In fact, objectively speaking, we don’t even know that this government is particularly abusive except for the Hunger Games itself and the disparity of wealth between the various districts.
Moreover those things which are political tend to be generic liberal tropes, like all the bad kids being rich and Caucasian, whereas the good kids are minorities. This is combined with another liberal trope, the Magic Negro trope, where the sole reason black characters exist is to aid the white protagonist in finding their humanity... you have three of those here (two kids who sacrifice themselves to save Katniss in the game and Lenny Kravitz who exists to tell us how special she is).

So, as far as the film goes, there is nothing particular conservative going on.
In terms of the film itself, the film is shot with a high degree of quality. The camera work is excellent, the effects are solid and the acting is good. The film is well paced. The story itself is solid, if simplistic – essentially, this is a film about people hunting each other in the woods and the rest is just characterization. The characters feel unique (the unique costumes help a good deal with this) and they feel whole, as if they have strong backstories, even though you don’t delve into those. The action is good, though there is nothing truly spectacular. There are a couple holes, but nothing that will stick out to you as you watch the film.
The film does have a couple flaws, but they are minor. For example, parts of the film could use more explanation. One such part involves the sponsors. The film spends considerable time telling you the importance of winning over sponsors so they can send the contestants vital gifts during the game, and Katniss does ultimately receive two life-saving gifts. Unfortunately, the film never explains the mechanics of this, such as how many sponsor there are or the limits of what they can send. The end result is that something the film builds up considerably feels underused and you wonder why the contestants aren’t awash in more and better gifts.

Another issue that is both a positive and a negative involves this being the first film in the series. On the one hand, this film feels complete and it doesn’t seem to spend any time setting up the sequels. I appreciate that as too many films like this feel hollow and incomplete as they spend all their time setting up sequels with introductions that won’t pay off during the film. On the other hand, this story by itself doesn’t offer all that much to make you want to revisit the film. Indeed, I suspect the re-watchability of this film will depend entirely on the re-watchability of the sequels.

Ultimately, this film doesn’t feel particularly consequential, nor is it particularly deep, nor does it leave you much to think about after you leave the theater, but it is a good film that is worth seeing. I don’t really see the political appeal for conservatives except for a general lack of liberalism, but I suspect there is more in the books that didn’t translate to the film.

Thoughts?
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Friday, September 5, 2014

Summer of Films: Escape Plan (2013)

Stallone and Schwarzenegger are back together again! It’s too bad their film stinks. Indifferent writing. Indifferent acting. Uninteresting settings. Weak action. Yawn. This was disappointing.

Plot

Ray Breslin (Stallone) has a talent for escaping from prisons. He’s so talented that the Department of Justice hires him to break out of supermax prisons so he can show them their weaknesses and they can correct them. Indeed, the film opens with him doing just that, though his escape stretches credulity.

Soon enough, Breslin finds himself visited by the CIA. Because they can’t “rendition” the worst of the worst anymore, they need a new system to hold the people who should never be allowed to see the light of day. To that end, they’ve contracted with a private sector company to build a prison where they can make these people disappear. Naturally, they want Breslin to attempt to break out of the prison to test their new system.
Stallone agrees even though they won't agree to any of his normal safety protocols. Of course, the minute he finds himself in the prison he learns that he has been betrayed and that someone wants him "disappeared." He also discovers that the warden is cruel and the guards are sadists who maintain control by beating prisoners. What's more, they built this prison using all of his ideas from his book on how to build an inescapable prison. Now he must break out or spend the rest of his life stuck in this prison. Helping him in this regard is another prisoner: renown assistant cyber-terrorist Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Can Stallone escape and regain his freedom? Take a guess.

Why This Film Stunk

In 1989, Stallone did a film similar to this. It was called Lock Up. In that film, he was a minor convict and model prisoner whose time was up, but the warden wanted to punish him after he went to the press about the warden’s treatment of prisoners. This caused the warden to try to set up Stallone to spend the rest of his life in prison, which leads to a sort of prison escape film/revenge film. Lock Up had solid motivations, strong emotions and high stakes. It may not have been the best film ever, but it got your attention.
The problem with Escape Plan is that it never really captures your interest. For one thing, this film is entirely predictable. You know Stallone is being set up the moment he agrees to take the assignment. You know Stallone will eventually escape. It’s just not possible that these things won’t happen. Moreover, throughout, you know when Stallone will be punished. You know when he will learn whatever he needs to learn to escape. You know who his friends will be, who will betray him, who he will kill and how it will all end. There are two twists, but they are so incidental to the plot that they have no impact. It’s hard to feel any tension when you know how each scene will end all throughout the movie.

The characters aren’t very interesting either. Arnold plays Arnold the action hero. He technically has a character, but it’s purely incidental to the movie and it’s nothing you care about, and you know he's never in any danger. Ditto on Stallone. James Caviezel plays the warden. Normally, I’m a fan of his, but here he plays the character so indifferently that he almost seems like a robot at times. There are other characters, but you won’t remember any of them.
The writing is really poor too. There isn’t a clever or memorable line. There isn’t a moment of insight. For a man who supposedly is a master of escaping from prisons, there’s no moment where he tells you something you don’t already know about prison, about the human state of mind as a guard or a prisoner, or even about how he perceives the world. Basically, every line of dialog is transactional: “I need to get into that room.”

The action isn’t very interesting either. For the most part, the action is entirely asymmetrical. Thus, the guards easily beat up the good guys when they want to. When the good guys escape, they easily crush the guards. Then in the final shootout, the good guys mow down dozens of guards without any real risk to themselves. There is never a fight where you don't know the outcome the moment it begins, and at no point is there any fight which feels like a payoff.
So what you have here are characters you don’t care about, a story that means nothing to you, a story you can predict moment by moment, fights with no tension, and an utter lack of cleverness and nothing memorable to take from the film. The end result is a film that is entirely devoid of tension and interest.

Frankly, Stallone can and should do a lot better. Stallone is a capable actor with a good deal of charisma who should be picking much more interesting projects at this point in his career.

Finally, as an aside, this film also has whiffs of politics that aren’t appreciated. It seems to be assumed that the CIA is evil. The CIA tortures prisoners. The prison guards are sadists. The worst of the worst are all Caucasians, with the one Islamist turning out to be a noble heroic character. The “good guy” (Arnold) has invented a plan to destroy the world’s banks. None of this was shoved in your face, but in a film with little else to hold your interest, these little leftist tropes became rather annoying.

Thoughts?
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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Summer of Films: Flight (2012)

Normally, I’m a fan of Denzel Washington. He has a compelling screen presence and his films tend to maintain a certain level of quality which I appreciate. Flight sounded like more of the same. It’s not. I really, really hated this film. Let’s discuss the disaster that was Flight.

Plot

Flight is the story of airline Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington). The film opens with Denzel awaking in a hotel room with a Brazilian supermodel. They’ve been fooling around. He’s drunk and probably high, but his phone is ringing. He is being called to fly a commercial airliner from Orlando to Atlanta. He doesn’t look good... but one line of coke later and the soundtrack kicks out “It’s Gonna Be All Right” from Gerry and the Pacemakers and Denzel is good to go.
He boards the plane and addresses the passengers from the galley. As he does, he empties three vodkas into an orange juice bottle he’s drinking. He returns to the cockpit and takes off into a storm. As they take off, he needs to gun the engines beyond safety protocols to push his way through the storm to a clear patch. After that, he falls asleep and lets his co-pilot take over.

Denzel wakes up a few minutes later as the plane starts a nosedive. The hydraulics have failed and the plane is headed straight down. To save the plane, Denzel inverts it and flies upside down, which lets him straighten the plane just long enough to glide it in for a survivable crash. Only six people die.

Denzel wakes up in the hospital. Despite saving 105 people with a maneuver that we are told no other pilot could have done, Denzel learns that he’s suddenly the villain because the NTSB has taken a blood sample and found that he was super drunk and high on cocaine. They want to send him to jail. This will all happen at a final NTSB hearing. Fortunately, Denzel’s lawyer gets his toxicology report suppressed, so all Denzel has to do at the hearing is deny that he was drunk. But when the NTSB decides to accuse one of the dead stewardesses of having drunk the vodka, Denzel grows a conscience and announces that he drank them and that he is an alcoholic, even though this means decades in prison for him.

Why This Film Stunk

Directed by Robert Zemeckis, this film won some awards and made $161 million on a $31 million budget, but I still despise it. Why? Well, for starters, the plot I described above sound pretty good, doesn’t it? Sure it does, only I left something out. The plot I described above takes up about 15 minutes of film time... but the film is 138 minutes long. So what happens in the other 123 minutes? Filler.
In several painfully long and slow scenes, we see Denzel throw away all of the hundreds of alcohol bottles he’s hidden around his house as well as the pot and the pills. He stares meaningfully at each and we stare with him. But you know how it is with alcoholics, so naturally we are treated to him buying more and we tearfully watch as he struggles not to drink any of it. Then he drinks it. Even worse, for reasons completely unknown, Denzel meets a woman who is a drug addict whose life is utterly boring and falling apart and the director thinks it’s a great idea to bring them together to be boring together... and we get to watch all of it. Yawn. I honestly contemplated skipping through those scenes after a while.

But that’s not even the worst sin in the movie. The bigger sin is the feeling that the whole thing is nonsense. It’s clear that whoever wrote this has no idea how the NTSB really works. They had no idea what brought down the plane or how to describe it to the audience. They had no idea what the NTSB does when it investigates. They didn’t seem to realize that the NTSB would be much more interested in finding out why the hydraulics failed than they would be in proving that Denzel had been drunk and high when he saved the plane. The sad result is that what could have been an interesting mystery about a plane crash with a good deal of tension as the question of his sobriety waits to be discovered at any moment turns into a nonsensical witch hunt in which the NTSB doesn’t care at all about what caused the plane to crash.

Nothing else makes sense either. The press seems to view him as a villain even though they apparently don’t know about his being intoxicated – as far as they should be concerned, he worked a miracle. Denzel has a friend (John Goodman) who can show up seemingly instantly and at will to give him drugs. After drying him out for a week, Denzel’s lawyer and best friend put Denzel into a hotel suite the night before the hearing. They have carefully removed all the alcohol from the minibar. Yet, magically, in the middle of the night the adjoining door to the next suite just happens to open, letting him into the empty neighboring room where he discovers the minibar and he goes hog wild; he goes to the hearing drunk and high on cocaine. Queue Gerry and the Pacemakers again.
The film creates fake tension by having Denzel fight with his lawyer (Don Cheadle) for no reason that makes any sense. Cheadle, by the way, is presented as a good guy even though he violates the rules of ethics in major ways that should easily lead to his debarment, including knowingly putting Denzel on the stand to lie. We are introduced to the evil airline owner who hides the fact from Denzel that he might go to jail... something everyone including Denzel already knows. Denzel pressures a stewardess to lie for him when the reality is she couldn’t have testified to what he wants her to avoid saying anyway. Not to mention, there's no payoff as we never see her testify.

Then we have the ending. The NTSB has been after Denzel, or so we are told as we never actually hear anything except through Denzel’s friends... show don’t tell, folks. But Denzel’s lawyer has gotten the toxicology report suppressed. So there is no alcohol issue anymore the NTSB can use to get Denzel. So they should now focus on the plane crash, right? Nope. The NTSB now seems determined to accuse a dead stewardess of being an alcoholic and having drunk the vodka Denzel did. Why? What does the NTSB care if a stewardess was drunk (a stewardess who was a heroine because she saved a boy who had slipped out of his seat when the plan inverted)? This is nonsense. The real NTSB will want to know why the plane crashed, not if a stewardess was drunk. Moreover, they will know that Denzel was drunk, even if they can't put it into the report. So why smear a stewardess? Further, as Denzel has been established as being both ultra-selfish and desperate to avoid prison, why would he care if they accused her of drinking the three vodkas? There is no way that draws a confession from him.
This movie made my head spin in bad ways. It was obvious the writer didn’t grasp the subject matter of airplane crashes or how the NTSB works. It was obvious the writer didn’t understand his characters. This feels like an attempt to grab an Oscar for playing drunk and the airplane crash was incidental to that. The film is packed with deus ex machina too... too much coincidence. Too much happens off screen - almost everything actually. The director mistook boredom for gravitas. And finally, the film was packed with clichés.

Take for example, the use of “It’s Gonna Be All Right” whenever Denzel cokes up and suddenly fills with energy and confidence. This has the feel of having been done a million times. The scene with the evil boss, the portrayal of alcoholism, John Goodman’s entire character... these are all things you’ve seen a million times before and none of them feel fresh.

Ug.

I like Denzel. I like Zemeckis too. But this was a disaster. It was boring. It was stupid. The only good bit was the airline crash itself, which was impressive CGI work, and they even had to ruin that with an impossibly clear “cell phone” video of the crash.

Thoughts?
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Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Film Guide

I've decided to release the film guide. It's called "The Conservative Guide To Films" and it contains a ton of information that will absolutely surprise you, as well as some hopefully insightful discussions of liberal and conservative films. You can buy it at Amazon here: LINK! (Paperback to come.) Enjoy!


***
Hollywood defines modern American culture, and culture defines "normal." It is through our culture that we pass our values and our beliefs from one generation to the next. By shaping our culture, Hollywood influences the way people see the world, how they solve their problems and to whom they look for solutions. It tells people how they should live, how they should act, and what they should believe. It is the parent so many parents are not, and unless conservatives want Hollywood raising a generation of reflexive liberals with no sense of personal responsibility, conservatives need to depoliticize the film industry to re-establish a cultural balance. That's where this book comes in.

"The Conservative Guide To Films" will help you understand what makes a film conservative or liberal. It will help you understand how the two ideologies present themselves and how to spot them. It will debunk a great many liberal boogeymen and it exposes Hollywood liberal hypocrisies. This is a book for anyone with an interest in films, culture, and politics.

Chapter 1: Why Political Messages In Films Matter

Chapter 2: Defining Conservatism & Liberalism

Chapter 3: How To Spot A Film's Ideology

Chapter 4: Conservative Myths: It's Not As Political As You Think
Is The Evil Corporate Villain Really Anti-Capitalist?
Are Missing Parents Anti-Marriage/Anti-Family?
Why Are There No Islamic Terrorists?
Is Gun Violence Anti-Gun?
Is Anti-War Always Anti-Military or Unpatriotic?
Chapter 5: Debunking Liberal Boogeymen
The Bloodthirsty Military
The Evil Businessman
The Republican Lobbyist
The Unreality of Guns
The European/Christian/Military Terrorist
Fascist Capitalists
Japanese Internment
Domestic Violence Demographics
The Southern Death Penalty
Chapter 6: Discussing Liberal Films
In Time (2011)
John Q (2002)
Norma Rae (1979)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
The China Syndrome (1979)
Erin Brockovich (2000)
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Battle for Terra (2007)
Avatar (2009)
The Abyss (1989)
The Golden Compass (2007)
Do The Right Thing (1989)
Thelma & Louise (1991)
The Green Mile (1999)
12 Angry Men (1957)
Chapter 7: A Note On Liberal Sucker Punches
Paul (2011)
The Invention of Lying (2009)
Machete (2010)
The Men Who Stare At Goats (2009)
Happy Feet (2006) & Happy Feet Two (2011)
The Other Guys (2010)
Source Code (2011) & Flightplan (2005)
Punisher: War Zone (2008)
Chapter 8: A Note On Backfiring Messages
The Guns of Navarone (1961)
Wall Street (1987)
Chapter 9: Discussing Conservative Films
Brazil (1985)
WALL-E (2008)
Rollerball (1975)
The Incredibles (2004)
Gladiator (2000)
Dirty Harry (1971) & Magnum Force (1973)
Blade Runner (1982)
Drumline (2002)
The Blind Side (2009)
Battle: Los Angeles (2011)
Smokey And The Bandit (1977)
Adventures In Babysitting (1987)
Ghostbusters (1984)
Harry Potter (1997-2011)
Chapter 10: Compare And Contrast: Conservative vs. Liberal Films
Dirty Harry (1971) vs. The Star Chamber (1983)
High Noon (1952) vs. Outland (1981)
Platoon (1986) vs. We Were Soldiers (2002)
Apocalypse Now (1979) vs. Apocalypse Now (Redux) (1979/2001)
Star Trek (1966-1969) vs. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
Chapter 11: Hollywood's Liberal Hypocrisy
Anti-Gun Hollywood Promotes Gun Violence
Feminist Hollywood Is Sexist
Hollywood Environmentalism Isn't So Green
Hollywood Racism
Political Correctness Goes Awry
Chapter 12: What Do We Do Now?
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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Summer of Films: Odd Thomas (2013)

When I ran across Odd Thomas the other day, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. Marketed as a mystery-thriller by horror author Dean Koontz, it struck me right away that this didn’t appear to be a horror movie. It wasn’t a mystery either. Nor did it look like a thriller. It obviously wasn’t aimed at the tent-pole crowd either, or the film-snob crowd. So what was it? Well, perhaps the best way to describe it is as a quirky film about a likeable guy in a quasi-horror-comedy.

Plot

Like the kid in The Sixth Sense, the hero of this film, Odd Thomas (Anton Yelchin), can see dead people. Only, in this film, Thomas is an adult and he uses his abilities to catch the people who killed the dead people: “I see dead people, but then, by God, I do something about it.” Helping him in this regard are his supportive girlfriend Stormy (Addison Timlin) and the Chief of Police (Willem Dafoe), who knows about his abilities and trusts him completely – this thankfully avoids the “the police think I’m the bad guy” cliché.
As the story opens, Thomas captures a killer. He then tells us about something he calls “bodaks,” which are like shapeless, see-through creatures that feed on upcoming horror. Thomas can see these too, but he warns us that if they know that you can see them, they will kill you. He tells us that there is usually only one bodak at a time and that he rarely sees them, typically less than one per month. As he tells us this, a man walks into the diner where Thomas works. This man is surrounded by bodaks and more are coming all the time. This means the man will do something truly horrible.

As Thomas investigates the man, who Thomas nicknames Fungus Bob, he uncovers a plot to kill a lot of people, which meshes with a dream he has in which he sees a bowling team get murdered. As he investigates, Thomas discovers that the plot is larger than he originally expected.
Why I Recommend This Film

In the opening paragraph, I called this a horror-comedy, but that’s not really all that accurate. For one thing, this film isn’t scary. There are a few moments where some tension is created, but that’s about it. Instead, the film goes for tense and even that is alleviated by the comedic overtones of Yelchin’s narration and the utter lack of fear displayed by the supporting characters. That said, the film isn’t a comedy either. There are a few moments that might make you laugh, like how Willem Dafoe seems to be having sex every time Thomas calls him, but it’s nothing that will make you laugh out loud and there aren’t any jokes you will recall.

So if this isn’t a horror-comedy, and it’s not a mystery or a thriller or a tent-pole film, what is it? Well, I’d say this is a quirky film along the lines of the original Fright Night or An American Werewolf in London. This is a film that thrives by giving you an unusual character you like, who goes through an adventure involving something unnatural and they must use their unusual traits and their ingenuity to solve the movie. And while you know the film will definitely end well for the hero, what holds your interest is the steadily rising challenge the character faces, the odd twists and turns along the way, and the fact you like the character and the world they inhabit.
Fortunately, that works out well here. Thomas is very likeable and his narration makes him even more likable, it gives the film a comfortable feeling like a friend is telling you a story. The other characters are likeable as well. Importantly, this film has none of the unpleasant ideas often tossed in to ratchet up the drama, e.g. the fight with the frustrated girlfriend, the unbelieving police deciding to arrest the hero, the insanely angry boss, the lost best friend, etc. Thus, there is no phony unpleasantness tossed in to damper the flow of the story. Instead, the film focuses on the plot itself. In that regard, the story moves well and proves quite surprising despise your knowledge that Thomas will solve the film. In fact, the film is full of little surprises throughout as things you expect to happen one way happen another way or don’t happen at all, and I can say that I was not able to guess where the film was headed at any particular moment, even though I knew how it needed to end. All of this makes for an engaging and enjoyable film, and that is the best way to describe this film: it is entertaining. It isn’t much more than that, but that’s enough to make a film worthwhile.

That said, I should provide a note of caution. Films like this tend to be cult films. Either you have a taste for this type of film, or you don’t. Either you get the humor, which is quite subtle, or you don’t. Either you can stomach the ambiguity throughout, or you can’t, as the film does not force-feed you everything you need to know. The critics hated this film, giving it a 34% rating, but I suspect this film will find its audience and will be recognized as a cult classic within a decade.

Thoughts?

** As an aside, this one may be difficult to find. It's on Netflix and DVD, but legal issues apparently kept it out of theaters.
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Friday, August 22, 2014

Margin Call (2011) v. Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

Wall Street was an amazing film. Yes, it was Oliver Stone’s attempt to slander the 1980’s and Reaganism, but Stone misfired and what he created instead was a film that captured the thrill of the 1980’s and sent a generation of kids to finance school to become his villain Gordon Gekko. Since that time, Stone’s ability as a filmmaker has faded. In 2010, he went back to Wall Street to see if he couldn’t steal some of his prior glory. He couldn’t. The movie he created was overly complex, meandering and stupid. It stood for nothing really. The movie he should have made was Margin Call.

Margin Call is one of those financial films that will scare most people away just by its description: “Huh, some guys who create something called asset-backed securities find out their assets are worthless and they don’t know what to do about it. Shoot me now... let’s watch Transformers.” In reality though, this is an excellent film that is worth seeing, even for people with no idea what an asset-backed security is. Moreover, this film very simply explains what happened in 2008 and how the financial world came crashing down.
Margin Call begins when junior risk analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) discovers that a group of assets the firm holds are worth far less than they paid for them. They are worth so little, in fact, that the losses on these assets alone (which are bought on margin) would bankrupt the firm if the world knew their true value. And in that regard, Peter and his boss (Paul Bettany) realize that the world will discover the truth within days. They tell the firm’s higher ups.
This sets off a series of events as senior firm personnel are called in even though it’s late night to come up with a strategy to deal with this crisis. A strategy is slowly developed to dump as many of these assets as possible at the opening of the trading day, no matter what the loss on these sales. This will destroy the firm’s reputation and the reputation of its traders, but it is the only way the firm will survive. In the process of developing this strategy, the film does an excellent job of explaining what asset-backed securities are how the firm was blindsided by their collapse in value, and you see a good deal of infighting, moralizing, struggling with hard decisions, and the lining-up of fall guys and scapegoats. The end result is a surprisingly gripping film, driven by a strong cast: Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, etc., which gives you a fairly accurate insight into how the financial crisis of 2008 began and how it played out at its very beginning.
By comparison, Money Never Sleeps is convoluted fantasy. It is Oliver Stone’s attempt to make you hate Gordon Gekko the way he wanted you to hate him after Wall Street. Essentially, the story of Money Never Sleeps is that Stone resurfaces from prison and finds his estranged daughter (Carey Mulligan). He claims he wants to rebuild his relationship with her. Coincidentally, she’s dating Shia LaBeouf, who is a trader at an investment firm. Shia is trying to raise money for a nuclear fusion project which would provide the world with massive amounts of clean energy. Unfortunately, Shia keeps getting blocked by Josh Brolin, who runs another Wall Street bank.
Gekko comes to Shia’s aid by telling him that Brolin is the enemy. Brolin, coincidentally, profited from the collapse of Shia’s old firm, which also led to the suicide of Shia’s old boss. Shia seeks revenge by spreading rumors he thinks will hurt Brolin’s firm. Brolin is somehow impressed by this and bizarrely hires Shia. Shia takes the job because he wants to avenge his boss’s suicide. He then uses his new position to get the Chinese to finance the fusion project. Everyone is happy.

Shia then learns that the Chinese (through Brolin) have betrayed him by investing in solar panels and fossil fuels instead of fusion. He is sad again. Gekko then proposes an alternative plan. All Shia needs to do is to convince Gekko’s daughter to give Gordon access to the $100 million trust fund he left her in Switzerland, and they could fund the project themselves. Naturally, he agrees because this is for a good cause. Of course, the daughter agrees too... and then Gordon steals the money and re-establishes himself on the street as a hedgefund manager. This was apparently the plan all along, no matter how Rube Goldbergian it was. Gordon won’t even give the money back in exchange for normalizing his relationship with his daughter and his new grandson because HE IS EVIL, people!!! (“F*** you idiots need to finally see that! He used his daughter!! How much more obvious can I make this?!!” – Oliver Stone)
As this story stumbles along, we are told that the collapse of Shia’s firm started the financial crisis. This led to a bailout of Brolin’s firm, which Brolin got because he dines with the regulators. But don’t worry, Gekko’s daughter runs an obscure website and she publishes the story of how Brolin caused everything, which causes Brolin to give back $1.1 billion and puts him under scrutiny by the government. Then Gekko gives the $100 million to the fusion people and they all reconcile. Yay.

These movies couldn’t be more different. Margin Call is accurate. It is cutting. It is dramatic. You don’t know what is going to happen, but you can’t pull your eyes away from the screen as these people, who seem decent in good times, turn into sharks when things go wrong and they find themselves balancing their own futures, the existence of the firm, the welfare of the employees, the welfare of the market, and the harm to the country. Each of them handles this differently, and that makes them fascinating to watch as they struggle with how to survive this likely career-ending crisis.
Most interestingly, none of them were villains when they caused this crisis, but some now become villains... or are they? Indeed, while it is easy to see them as rotten, the real question you keep asking yourself is if you would actually do anything differently at this point. That idea makes this a truly soul searching, gripping story as you place yourself into the shoes of these characters and you wonder how you would handle being them. Would you be more noble? Is there even anything more noble you could do? What could you live with? What could you ask of others? These are all fascinating questions which are brought on by this film.
Wall Street, by comparison, is a joke. It has zero accuracy in terms of the financial crisis. It feels like Stone took a couple contradictory paranoid ideas, invented a villain, and then spun a fantasy which he thinks is damning but comes across as fringy and silly. He seems to suggest that the financial crisis is the result of a villain or two spreading lies about other company’s assets and thereby causing a panic. That’s ridiculous. At the same time, the story meanders on this point as it is only told to us in asides to the Shia v. Gekko story, and that story is ridiculous. The idea that Gekko orchestrated a plan which involved people being framed and fired and committing suicide and a nation-threatening financial crisis just to get at his daughter’s trust fund through her boyfriend is ludicrous.

The long and the short of it, is that I had no idea what to expect when I watched Margin Call and I found myself glued to the screen. This film felt like a mix of the best parts of Wall Street and Glengary Glenn Ross. It was tense, interesting, and informative. You feel like you understand the financial crisis so much better by the time the film is over and you find yourself both despising these people but wondering if you would have acted any differently. It is a brilliant film.

Money Never Sleeps, on the other hand, is a film you should skip. It is only a reminder of how much Stone has lost as a storyteller.

Thoughts?
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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Guest Review: Transcendence (2014)

by ScottDS

What happens when you take an A-list cast, a tantalizing concept, and an Oscar-winning cinematographer making his directorial debut? Unfortunately, you get Transcendence, a dull-as-dishwater thriller that opened to tepid reviews earlier this year. Loathe as I am to agree with the critics, they were right about this one.

Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall play Will and Evelyn Caster, scientists working on the world’s first sentient computer. Will predicts such a computer will eventually create a singularity (the hypothesis that artificial intelligence will one day exceed human intelligence). During a presentation, Will is shot by a member of an anti-technology terrorist organization (RIFT, or Revolutionary Independence from Technology). With only a few weeks to live, Evelyn decides to upload Will’s consciousness into the neural network they’d been working on. Will’s best friend and fellow scientist Max (Paul Bettany) protests: “It won’t be Will… humankind isn’t ready for this…” Max is subsequently captured by Bree, leader of RIFT, and eventually joins their crusade. The government is also suspicious of the Caster’s situation.
Evelyn and Will – now in virtual form (à la Max Headroom) and connected to the Internet – build a techno-utopia in the small desert town of Brightwood. Will seeks to improve humanity and is able to use nanoparticles to improve the health of Brightwood’s residents, even restoring one man’s sight. But Evelyn soon has misgivings when she finds out that these people are now “networked” and can be controlled by Will. As his influence grows, RIFT develops a virus that can shut him down – the downside is that it will destroy any and all networked technology. The characters are presented with a choice: destroy Will, or risk being “assimilated” even as he improves the world. Evelyn carries the virus to Will, who has now reconstituted in human form, but she’s fatally injured during a RIFT attack. Now Will has a choice: let her die but continue to infect civilization, or upload her consciousness and the virus along with it. He chooses the latter: they both die and the technological world as we know it collapses.
This movie just… sits there. It’s not terrible but it’s not very good, either. The script (by first-timer Jack Paglen) raises some interesting questions and there are a few sparks of creativity, but what this film really needed was what I call the “conference room scene.” The characters speak in clichés and “movie speak” and what was missing was a serious philosophical discussion, or a series of such discussions, the kind Michael Crichton was so great at writing. (I’ve always said I’d love to see a stage version of Sphere, with the characters just sitting around a table debating science for two hours.) The topic of artificial intelligence has been done so much better elsewhere. I’ve read comparisons to The Lawnmower Man but I’ll also throw in the Star Trek: TNG episode “The Nth Degree.” Hell, this movie is pretty much a dramatic re-telling of the third act of Superman III, with Depp playing both the Richard Pryor and Robert Vaughn roles!

After reading this article, it’s clear that something was lost along the way. Paglen’s original script was on the Black List (no, not that list – this Black List is a yearly compilation of the best unproduced spec scripts). It featured some cool action set pieces with nano-engineered “super soldiers” as well as a love triangle between Will, Evelyn, and Max. The final film features no love triangle, and no big set pieces. Sure, there are some pyrotechnics courtesy of the RIFT goons… and that’s it. No super soldiers, just modified humans who don’t do much of anything. Since Will’s intentions were only benign, I suppose the filmmakers were hesitant to have him kill anyone. And if this was supposed to be some kind of twist (he’s not evil, he’s good!), then it was completely lost on me. At no point did I think Will would turn to the dark side. This film takes such a microscopic view of things – there’s no sense of dread or impending doom. We see nano-particles traveling along wind currents and forests re-growing and it’s like, “Gee, Will’s plan doesn’t sound so bad!” We also get a flash-forward at the beginning where we see Max in a tech-free future. So there… now we know how it ends, thirty seconds after the opening logo. What a horrible miscalculation!
Believe it or not, Depp can play regular people. He’s done it before. In this movie, he’s just dull. Truthfully, he’s better at playing the AI than a flesh and blood human being. Rebecca Hall is even worse as Evelyn. I couldn’t recall seeing her before but after looking at her credits, it turns out I’ve actually seen her in several movies. She’s either so good that she blends right in, or she’s so terrible that I am incapable of remembering her! She is also dull. Paul Bettany probably makes the best impression as Max, but how much better would this movie be if he were actually in love with Evelyn? Morgan Freeman sleepwalks through this movie as a friend and colleague of the Casters. Cillian Murphy is wasted as an FBI agent. Kate Mara is a non-entity as Bree. As mentioned in the previously-linked article, all the actors play the same emotion. Everyone here has one mode: dour. There’s no Spielbergian sense of discovery or creativity, and no humor.
Wally Pfister is a cinematographer by trade. He’s shot all of Christopher Nolan’s films since Memento and won an Oscar for Inception. Even with Nolan on this film as an executive producer, Pfister doesn’t contribute anything unique. Anyone could’ve directed this movie and while watching it, I couldn’t help but think what David Fincher would’ve done with it, or even Nolan himself. (I imagine a Nolan-directed version of this film would be equally dour, but there might be a few more sparks of genius within.) To be fair, there have been cinematographers who’ve successfully crossed over to directing, including Barry Sonnenfeld and Nicolas Roeg. Even Jan de Bont hit it out of the park with Speed… then he had to go and make Speed 2. Perhaps Pfister was ill-suited to the material. Or maybe he should’ve made his directing debut with something smaller. In fact, considering how they revised the original script, this movie could’ve benefited from being a smaller-budget B-movie. Perhaps we should wait for the inevitable SyFy Channel version with Lorenzo Lamas and Traci Lords!

As per usual, tech stuff is all top-notch. The Brightwood facility looks pretty cool, all sterile white and endless corridors. The cinematography is pleasant, though Pfister relies a little too much on “artsy” shots of water droplets and dewy windows, as if to say THIS MOVIE IS IMPORTANT! The score is droning background noise. The CGI nano-particles are petty neat, though. At the end, Bettany visits the Caster’s old house and notices a drop of water falling off a flower petal and into a puddle of oil… which is instantly cleansed. All of this takes place underneath Will’s home-made Faraday cage (a copper mesh which blocks electromagnetic fields). So perhaps there is hope after all?

Not for this movie.
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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Summer of Films: WALL-E (2008)

WALL-E is a great film. On the surface, it’s a cartoon about a silent robot which falls in love with another robot. But it’s really so much more. In fact, WALL-E is the first Pixar film to truly show me the depth of their storytelling prowess.

Plot

Here’s the plot. In 2105, the Earth is ruled by a single corporation, Buy-n-Large Corporation (BnL). Because of pollution and garbage, the Earth has become uninhabitable. To solve this problem, BnL shoots the population of the Earth into space aboard luxury starliners, where they live in great comfort and happiness. Unfortunately, having nothing to do, as the starliners are automated and robots wait on their every need, the humans become morbidly obese and essentially incapable of movement as they become dependent on the machines.
Meanwhile, robots like WALL-E are left behind to clean up the garbage as everyone waits for the Earth to become habitable again. BnL, however, concludes that the Earth cannot be saved and it orders the automated starliners to take care of the humans in perpetuity.

WALL-E takes place seven-hundred years after the Earth was abandoned. WALL-E is one of the garbage robots, and the story begins when WALL-E discovers a small seedling on the Earth. He nurtures it, only to have it found by EVE, a robot sent from the starliner Axiom to search the Earth for signs of life. She reports her discovery, but when she does, the ship’s automatic pilot Auto, suppresses her discovery and tries to have her reprogrammed. WALL-E, who has fallen in love with her tries to save her, and she, WALL-E and the figurehead human Captain must fight Auto to free the humans from their gilded cage. At the end of the movie, they return to Earth where they discover millions of seedlings, and like Noah, they set about rebuilding the world.

Why This Film Excels

WALL-E is an amazing story. Why? Because it’s really several different stories, all told simultaneously and beautifully. For example, on the surface, WALL-E is a love story in which a robot which cannot even talk thoroughly convinces the audience that it has fallen in love with another robot. This is truly an impressive achievement. Having an audience believe that two characters are in love is already a difficult challenge. Making them cartoons doubles the challenge. Making one of them mute ups the challenge exponentially. And putting them into a story that is not a love story makes this a nearly impossible task... yet, Pixar pulls it off without a hitch or hiccup.
Next, WALL-E is an allegorical version of the story of Noah’s Ark from the Bible, but that’s just the beginning. Consider that Noah’s story is not exactly a strong story when it comes to filmability. Not to mention that Pixar doesn’t even get to use the spectacle of the flood to pump up the story. Further, the film takes place in the future, and it cannot be overtly religious. Again, these are serious hurdles that make Pixar’s ability to pull this off pretty incredible.

But there’s more... WALL-E is essentially Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” brought to film. Yes, it is. Whereas Orwell warned of a brutal, oppressive government crushing freedom, Huxley provided a similar warning in “Brave New World,” only he pointed out that government need not be heavy-handed to be insidious. Instead, it can use hedonistic pleasure to control the people just as easily as it uses violence. WALL-E delivers this identical message. Consider this:
On the surface, the humans seem happy. They have food and entertainment. They want for nothing. Notice also that the “government” is not inspired by evil. Indeed, Auto genuinely believes he’s looking out for the welfare of the people. His job is to protect the humans by keeping them on the ship, and that is all he wants to do. There is no better example of a benign dictator on film.

But first impressions are misleading or at least incomplete. The idea that the humans are happy is shown to be a mirage when they realize how helpless and dependent they’ve become. This awakens something inside them, something which drives them to regain their freedom despite everything they will lose.
The idea of Auto as a benign dictator falls apart as well. First, note that Auto suppresses information which runs counter to his mission. His motives may be good, but this is tyrannical behavior which strips people of the freedom to make their own choices. He even tries to destroy EVE, because he sees her as a danger to his mission. Suddenly, Auto’s methods are those of dictators the world over. Then, when the Captain orders Auto to set the humans free, Auto ignores his orders and fights the Captain to keep the humans prisoners. Essentially, in the name of doing good, Auto hides the truth, eliminates those who know the truth, and use his power to deprive the humans of their independence.

This is a truly subtle and difficult story to tell, yet Pixar does it and it does it without any false shortcuts, such as making Auto defective or secretly programmed to be evil. Evil just becomes natural to him because he has absolute power. Pixar lays this out without adding fake motives to try to explain away difficult truths. That's a hard sell for a cartoon. Add in that at the same time it does that, Pixar tells the Noah story and the love story, and you have a true achievement here.

Truly impressive.

Thoughts?
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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Summer of Films: The Grey (2011)

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from The Grey. Would this be a pointless action film? Would it be a weepy “buddy” film? I wasn’t sure. One thing I did know was that this one would be a tricky film to get right. So imagine my surprise to find a very enjoyable film. I can’t call the film “great” because there just isn’t enough to it, but it certainly was a top notch film that will hold your interest and keep you waiting to see what happens next.

Plot

Liam Neeson works as a hunter for an oil company of some sort. He works up near the arctic circle, and his job is to shoot wolves before they attack the company’s workers. His tour of duty has come to an end, however, and it’s time for him to fly home. Hence, he and about a hundred others board a plane for the civilized world.
It crashes.

Waking up in the freezing wilderness, Neeson realizes very quickly that they will never be found. Thus, he tells the other survivors that they need to walk their way out of the wilderness. They don’t really agree... not until one of them gets eaten by wolves. See, it turns out that they have landed in the hunting grounds of a particularly vicious pack of wolves, run by a massive gray alpha wolf, and these wolves have a taste for human.

The rest of the story is simple: as Neeson and the rest make their way through the wilderness, the wolves hunt them and pick off the stragglers.
Why This Film Works

Films like this are difficult because they don’t give the director much to work with. On the one hand, you have “facing the elements,” fighting exhaustion, and fighting off the foe who can attack at will. That may sound like more than enough, but it’s not. The reason is that all of this has been done so often that it’s frankly rather dull. How many ways can you show wanting to fall asleep or freezing in the snow or doing the same things we know they must do to survive? The attacks are obviously more interesting, but they are necessarily rare or the film becomes a bit of a joke. So how do you fill in the rest of the film in a way which keeps the audience’s attention?
That’s where the other hand comes in. On that other hand, you have some personal drama that can be used to fill the time. This can include a dispute or tension or conflict between the survivors as they try to make their way to safety. The danger here, however, is that the drama will feel fake. Sure, some people don’t like taking orders or they may not trust someone else, but the further you go with this, the less believable it becomes because it starts to seem like the characters care more about fighting than they do the danger they face. Indeed, this is one of those moments where no matter what your differences are, you still stick together until it’s over.
The alternative is some sort of internal monologue where the main character does his best to keep himself motivated as his body slowly begins to fail. The danger here is that the audience may not like the main character enough to care about his plight. Moreover, directors often fall prey to the idea of trying to tell a completely different movie through the flashbacks, which hurts the pacing of the main film.

Director Joe Carnahan gets around these issues by embracing them all, but only in tiny amounts. Essentially, we are shown enough conflict to know that the men are scared, but not enough to see them as stupid. We are shown enough flashbacks to know what the men have to live for, but not enough to weigh us down or slow the story. We see Neeson’s story in flashback too, but it isn’t much longer than the others, though it has a strong punch. And we get an inner monologue from Neeson which is credible, intense, and gives us genuine insight into his character.
What really makes all of this work, however, is Neeson. Like so many other characters in this type of situation, Neeson has a tragic past. I won’t tell you what it is, but it builds expertly and when you find out the kicker, it may bring a tear to your eye. That gives you a strong reason to feel for him. But even without that, Neeson does several things that strike you throughout – things that are normally missing in films like this. For example, after the plane crash, when most characters are proving their macho cred so they can lead, Neeson takes charge because his personality is so strong and then he stops to console a dying man. And the way he does it is unique. He tells the man honestly that he will die, and then he calms him to the prospect. This is a powerful moment that sets Neeson apart from anything you've seen before and it turns him into the man you want with you in the event of a disaster. You also learn that he was suicidal the night before and his reason was philosophically inspired: “I’ve stopped doing this world any good.” He also has a fascinating moment where he calls out God: “Do something! Come on! Prove it! Fuck faith! Earn it! Show me something real! I need it now. Not later. ... I’m calling on you.” Throughout, his character surprises with clever moments like this.

The one downside... or maybe not... is the ending. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say that it’s not a traditional ending and some people won’t like it at all. I personally wanted more at first, but felt satisfied as I thought about the meaning of it all.

All told, this is a film where you all know the plot, you all know what will happen, and you can guess most of the characters. Nevertheless, the film feels fresh and it will pull you in and hold your interest. I definitely recommend this one.
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Friday, August 8, 2014

Summer of Films: Argo (2012)

Argo is one of those film. If it had been released in the 1990s, it would have been dismissed as pointless, predictable and dull. But in our current age of dumbed down filmmaking, Argo is seen as something of a decent and interesting film. In fact, the critics gave it a 96% score. It deserved a 60%.

** Spoiler Alert **
Plot
Argo is based on the real story of the CIA’s efforts to rescue a handful of American Embassy personnel from Iran during the evil Carter years. The story begins with the Iranians storming the American Embassy in Tehran. As they do, six Americans escape out the back of the Embassy. They make their way to the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor. From there, they call home for help.
Back in Washington, the various agencies feud about who will run the operation to rescue these six. Eventually, the CIA takes charge and they float a number of operations. None of them are good options. The one they ultimately choose involves a CIA operative (Ben Affleck) going to Iran, pretending to be a location scout for a movie company. The movie they are making is a bizarre and pathetic Star Wars knock-off called Argo, and they claim they want to film in various parts of Tehran and the surrounding country. The real plan, however, is to pick up the six, who will pretend to be part of the film crew and then leave Iran under Canadian passports.

Naturally, the plan runs into complications throughout and they barely escape.
This film is a lost opportunity.
This film has serious potential. For one thing, you have a truly interesting setting. Not only is this an interesting historical moment, but it’s a fascinating location to set a film as few other Western films have ever been filmed in Iran. For another, you have a series of fascinating storylines that are ripe for exploitation. For example, you can explore how to set up a genuine film company as they need to set one up to support their story in the event the Iranians do any investigation of who they are. Then you have the question of how they navigate the Iranian government, which was awash in revolutionaries. Finally, you have the escape plot itself, which calls out for dramatic near-misses. Each of these aspects should make for an excellent and interesting film if done right.
Unfortunately, the film fails to exploit these things because the film is lazily written. Indeed, the biggest problem with the film is that it never digs into the details of what happens. For example, we are never told how they really escape. We are never told how Affleck can fly in as one person and leave as seven without this raising huge red flags. We get hints of Iranian interference, but there is never a sense given of how systematic this is, whether the interference is getting worse or better, or even if the Iranians are really aware of the true identity of the six or are just being difficult. The result is a film that plays out only on the surface and, consequently, never gives us enough information to know when the characters are in danger and what things would increase their danger. As a result, the film struggles to create the tension and angst that should be inherent in its theoretically provocative storyline.
In fact, where this really comes through is at the end. As the six try to make their way through the airport and onto the commercial jetliner waiting for them, we see other Iranians racing to the airport to stop them. But we don’t really have an idea who these Iranians are or if they represent a true threat. We’re not even sure what they will accuse the six of, or if the six have a reasonable defense. We don’t know how long it will take these Iranians to get to the airport. We don’t know where in the airport the six are at any particular time. We don’t know if the Iranians can stop the plane or if the six are safe once they board. The result is that we are basically told that the law of films will apply, which means we will be shown a series of fake near misses as the characters make a hair-splitting escape in the final frame. But since we know they will escape, and we have no way to track how finely the hair is being split, all we can do is watch indifferently as things happen that feel meaningless and fake to us as the film drives toward an inevitable and obvious ending.
Moreover, adding things like some random airport guard deciding to call the Argo production company to verify their credentials doesn’t add any tension because this feels like a film gimmick to raise the level of tension, which tells us right away that nothing will come of it. Having the Iranians race out onto the runway doesn’t add tension either because, again, this feels like a film gimmick. Indeed, a more realistic ending would involve the tower cancelling permission to leave or the Iranians blocking the runway...not racing alongside the plane.

Argo is a story with true potential, but the film underwhelms at every turn. This is a film that doesn’t care about its characters and which prefers Hollywood gimmicks to the solid drama available to it. In a way, it’s as if Affleck (the director) just didn’t care enough to learn the story except at a surface level and he plugged the holes where the tension was missing with chase movie tropes. That makes this film really hard to like.

Thoughts.
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